Pizza Champ (forthcoming location at 2657 Lyle Avenue, Maplewood)
COURTESY OF PIZZA CHAMP
Pizza Champ will get a permanent space of its own in early 2022.
may have been born of pandemic-related necessity, but soon it will become a full-fledged part of the St. Louis food and beverage scene. The popular pizza pop-up, courtesy of Elmwood's (2704 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood; 314-261-4708)
Adam Altnether and Chris Kelling, is set to become a standalone, brick and mortar restaurant in Maplewood early next year, featuring the pizzas, salads and sandwiches that have gained it a loyal following over the past year and a half.
Set to open in early 2022, Pizza Champ will be located just down the street and around the corner from Elmwood, the restaurant where the pizza pop-up was born in response to 2020's pandemic-induced closures. The 800 square foot space will be set up for counter service; additionally, an adjoining 60-seat patio that can be enclosed and heated in the chillier months will provide seating for guests who wish to stay and enjoy their pies on site. The restaurant will split the building with a new concept from Side Project Brewing.
Though Altnether and Kelling have noted that a pizza concept in some form had been in their back pocket for a while
, the pair felt compelled to make it a reality sooner than expected when pandemic-related closures and changes to the nature of dining forced their hand in the July of 2020. As Kelling explains, the launch of Pizza Champ during that time had less to do with their desire to pursue their vision for a pizza spot and more to do with simply keeping Elmwood's doors open.
"Our first intention was survival," Kelling says. "In July of 2020, we realized that 25 percent [dining room capacity] wasn't going to happen and to-go plated dinners had fallen out of fashion. We'd always thought about pizza, but this was born out of our need to survive."
Altnether and Kelling launched Pizza Champ out of Elmwood in July of 2020 and found immediate success. Known for its eighteen-inch pizzas cooked in a brick-lined oven, Pizza Champ took Altnether's immense culinary talent and applied it to a more casual form, resulting in everything from a best-in-class traditional pepperoni pie to more creative offerings like a grilled kale and ricotta version. As word of their pizza excellence spread through the community, Altnether and Kelling found themselves able to serve guests who might not have otherwise sat for one of Elmwood's dinner experiences.
Now, the pair are excited to have a permanent spot to build upon that momentum, and they are confident that the synergy with the adjacent Side Project Brewing that the new location provides will help them in those efforts. Though Pizza Champ and the new Side Project spot will be two separate businesses, they will operate in conjunction with one another; guests can order Side Project beers, as well as wine and cocktails, out of a dedicated window and order Pizza Champ from its own food counter. The idea is for guests to draw a little bit from each business and either take the food and beverage to go or enjoy it on the patio. Eventually, Altnether and Kelling plan to work out an arrangement to have Pizza Champ delivered to Side Project's brewery down the road.
"I've known Cory and Karen [King] for years, but we've gotten to know their team, and every single person at the cellar and the brewery, wants you to enjoy their beers," Kelling says. "Obviously, the product stands by itself and is terrific, but the team and culture there is really unmatched. It's a positive environment like the one we try to create every day, and that synergy made it seem like we could share this very small space together. Plus, Adam and Cory remind me of each other with their commitment to using the best products, knowing all the steps and their recognition of what is good. They are two of the hardest working, smartest people I have been around."
Until the new location opens, Altnether and Kelling will continue to offer Pizza Champ out of Elmwood as they have been for the last year and a half. As for Elmwood, they have temporarily suspended operations to focus on getting Pizza Champ up and running, though Kelling insists the closure will be short-lived. Prior to the suspension, the pair were working on tweaking the Elmwood concept, turning the restaurant into a more formal, pre-paid, coursed experience — a slight break from their initial idea of Elmwood as a neighborhood gathering place equally suitable for special occasions dinner as it was for weeknight burgers and beers at the bar.
Though Kelling says he and Altnether are not completely set on their idea about what the path forward looks like for Elmwood, he believes that the success they had in offering an more upscale experience over the past couple of months will likely dictate the restaurant's future.
"We kind of leaned into being a fancy place, and the momentum was there," Kelling says. "Our last weekend [offering the coursed dinners] was our busiest weekend since March of 2020. We're going to lean into that with the return of Elmwood. We will come back in spring and see what summer holds and what happens with public health and sentiment and will figure out the evolution from there. We're happy to think of Pizza Champ as a neighborhood place and Elmwood as a special occasion restaurant."
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